In the first graduating class at Milwaukee’s Alliance High School, the valedictorian – the year’s most distinguished student – scored a D+. “They were smart,” recalls Tina Owen, the school’s founder and lead teacher. “But a lot of them had not been going to school because they were being bullied, and a lot of them had problems at home. That year we had 15 kids. Five of them had lived with me at some point during the year, for one reason or another.”
Alliance is not a regular school. Its aim is to cater to a community that is at best ignored and, at worst, is actively denied its existence – lesbian and gay youth. Call it a gay school and you will be promptly corrected. There’s no entrance criteria on the grounds of sexual orientation or anything else. The school building, an unassuming brick block set back from a main road, doesn’t fly rainbow flags or emblazon its walls with posters of pink triangles. Owen guesses about half the students are LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender). “If you are gay, no big deal,” she says. “If you aren’t, no big deal.”
But the school, which is funded by the state of Wisconsin, is self-avowedly gay-friendly. “Here they can talk about a relationship or a break-up without worrying about how that’s going to be received,” explains Owen. The posts of Prom King and Prom Queen are open for anyone to run for, regardless of their gender. A mural at its entrance bears the words “knowledge, respect, peace”, and a sign saying Stonewall Inn. It’s a small school – just 165 students – where everybody knows each other. The corridors host more than the regular share of boys with shoulder-length hair or painted nails. All together it adds up to a critical mass of children who say they felt they didn’t fit in elsewhere – whether they are goths, punks or nerds – which makes being a non-conformist at Alliance the norm. The school’s art teacher affectionately described the school to Time magazine as “the island of misfit toys”.